Fall planting—September or October—allows garlic cloves to develop a robust root system, though gardeners in southern states may have better results planting in late winter for summer harvest. After planting, a few leaves may sprout from the clove, but they stop growing when cold weather arrives.
Grow garlic in a spot that gets full sun and has loose, crumbly soil. Compacted soil produces irregularly shaped bulbs; soil that retains water, especially during the winter, will cause bulbs to rot. Improve the soil's fertility and texture by working in 1 to 2 inches of organic compost or aged manure before planting.
To prepare garlic for planting, split the bulb into cloves, leaving their papery coverings intact. Choose only those that are firm and free of brown spots and damage." The secret with garlic is to plant the biggest cloves," says nurseryman Ted Biernacki of Ted's Greenhouse in Tinley Park, Illinois, for the simple reason that big cloves develop into large heads of garlic. Plant each clove with the pointed growing tip up and the flat root end down. In areas with mild winters, set the cloves about 1 to 2 inches deep. Where winters are severe, plant the cloves 2 to 4 inches deep. Space them 4 to 6 inches apart in the row with 12 inches between rows. Spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of straw over the planting area to help keep the soil moist and winter weeds in check. Keep the cloves watered for about 3 weeks after planting to aid root growth.
Longer spring days and warm weather help initiate bulb and top growth. Each green leaf represents one layer of the bulb's papery outer wrapper. The leaves will grow a foot or more, and it is critical to keep the soil evenly moist during this period of active growth, because dry soil will inhibit bulb enlargement. In early spring, spray the foliage with dilute liquid fish emulsion. There is no need to fertilize after May, because the extra nutrients will encourage leaf production at the expense of bulb size. When the leaves begin to yellow in summer, hold off on watering to prevent rot.
Cut off the hardneck flower scapes when the looping stems begin to straighten; use raw or stir-fried. Harvesting a leaf or two from each plant to use in place of chives is fine, but don't cut too many, because they supply energy to the growing bulbs. Bulbs are ready to harvest when about half the leaves turn yellow and fall over or when only three or four green leaves remain on the plant. Avoid damaging the bulbs by using a garden fork to lift them rather than pulling them out.
Harvested bulbs must dry thoroughly (a process called curing), or they will rot in storage. Carefully brush away soil, leaving the roots and leaves intact. Lay the garlic out in a single layer in a shaded, well-ventilated spot for 2 to 3 weeks. Once the outer wrapper layers of the bulb feel dry and papery, either braid the stems together (see How to Braid Garlic) or cut them off (leave a ½-inch stub) and store the bulbs in a mesh bag. In general, hardnecks last 6 to 10 months in storage, while softnecks can last up to a year, but homegrown garlic usually disappears into soups, salad dressings, and stir-fries well before then.
The Garlic Roll Call
Garlic sold in grocery stores is often imported from China and treated with a chemical to prevent sprouting, so be sure to buy untreated heads, usually from a local farmers' market or from a nursery. Many heirloom and new varieties are also available via mail order. Of the several hundred garlic cultivars grown in the United States, as many as half are genetically similar, according to a study in the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. Despite the possibility of duplication, these varieties are worth trying.
'Asian Tempest'. Produces 6 or 7 cloves per bulb. Raw, this Asiatic-type garlic is quite hot, but it becomes sweeter and milder when cooked.
'Persian Star'. A purple stripe that produces 8 to 10 moderately spicy cloves and is suited for warmer climates.
'Creole Red'. A Creole-type garlic with 6 to 9 cloves that have a robust flavor.
'Music'. A porcelain variety with 4 to 6 large cloves per bulb and pretty pinkish white wrappers. Perfect for roasting.
'Spanish Roja'. A rocambole with 7 or 8 purple-streaked cloves per bulb and superior flavor when cooked.
'Xian'. This turban variety matures very early and produces 8 to 12 large, plump cloves.
'Inchelium Red'. An artichoke variety with 9 to 18 cloves per bulb; this garlic has a mild lingering flavor that grows stronger in storage.
'California White'. Large bulbs with 10 to 20 mild-flavored cloves. This silverskin variety stores well and is perfect for braiding.
'Chilean Silver'. A pure white silverskin variety with 15 to 18 cloves per bulb.
Garlic Seed Foundation, garlicseedfoundation.info.
Abundant Life Seeds, 541-767-9606, abundantlifeseeds.com
Filaree Farm, 509-422-6940, filareefarm.com
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, 860-567-6086, kitchengardenseeds.com
The Garlic Store, 800-854-7219, thegarlicstore.com